Situation of Women in India: Overview and Estimation
Indian women generally are victims of atrocities! The deep-seated and customary mayhem remains unexposed for fear of losing one’s social status. A twenty three year old paramedical student, a victim of sexual violence in the capital city of India, while battling for life and more specifically in and through her death has stipulated that the nation end violence against its female citizens and guarantee them dignity, safety and honour. Will women in India be repositories of honour? The current reflection (restricted chiefly to reclaiming dignity of women) is an endeavour to grapple with this impasse. It traces in brief the legal pledges guaranteed to women in India vis-a-vis the actuality of obtaining the assurances. It proposes an attitudinal change that respects women as humans.
‘Women in India are equal’, declares Indian Constitution: it guarantees to all women equality, prohibition of discrimination by the state, equality of opportunity, and equal pay for equal work. It also provides special enactments for women and children – it renounces practices derogatory for dignity of women and provides just and humane conditions, for instance, maternity benefits. When / wherever dignity of women is infringed the Indian state enforces women-specific laws such as Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, and the Domestic Violence Act. Besides, the Indian Penal Code deals specifically with offenses like rape, kidnapping and abduction, dowry deaths, torture, molestation and sexual harassment; under the IPC, a man is said to commit rape if the woman is less than 16 years of age, with or without her consent. The Indian Evidence (Amendment) Act [IEA] 1983 provides that if a custodial and gang rape victim states before Court that she did not consent, the court shall presume that she did not consent. The IEA 2002 provides that it is not permissible to question the prosecutix on the general moral character. The Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act 2005 provides for investigation of custodial rape by judicial magistrates. These Acts have been incorporated in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2010, in view of bringing rape within the meaning of sexual assault. Lately, i.e., in 2012, the Parliament has passed the Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Bill.
An assessment of these exceptional women-specific Bills and Acts, urges one to liken the situation of Indian women to passengers travelling in a ‘hijacked plane’: they are beneficiaries of incredible privileges; however, they are far from attaining them. Detrimental attitudes prevalent in society confirm this contention. Marriage is considered ultimate in the life of a woman; however, the need to pay dowry makes a daughter a burden, leading to sex-selective abortions and female foeticides. The Hindu Marriage Act prescribes the age of marriage for a girl as 18 but it does not say that marriage of a girl below 18 years is ‘void or voidable’. A woman has no right to choose her life partner; if she does, she is murdered and such a horrific act is called ‘honour killing’. Single / divorced women are considered ‘available’ [for sexual assault]. Domestic violence is accepted meekly by most women who have no alternative. According to the UNICEF Report 2012, 57 per cent of Indian boys and 53 per cent of Indian girls between 15 and 17 years consider wife-beating justified!
Damaging attitudes have come to the fore vehemently in the context of the above-noted gang rape and its aftermath. Khap Panchayats (all-male informal village councils) have dictated that a victim of rape ‘compromise by marrying the rapist’, they bar women below 40 years age from using mobile phones and from shopping, they recommend reducing the girls’ age of marriage to 16 years. The directives do not seem to arise out of concern for safety of women; rather, they indicate excuses to impose patriarchal strictures. Irresponsible attitudes and statements have been heard from the politicians of the country as well: they suggest the ban of girls wearing skirts; they state that rape is an urban phenomenon (a clear endorsement of the rape of poor rural and Adivasi women).
The Delhi gang rape has awakened the citizens especially the urban middle class Indians to its grass-roots power. Their violent protest obliged the country to act promptly; the state formed a panel named the Justice Verma Panel, which engaged with the problem. It heard the hurt, sentiment and rage of the youth. The panel lambasted police and politicians and made a sweeping demand to ‘change the way in which women are treated in the country’. The legal reforms it suggested include tougher penalties in newly defined offenses such as stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks and trafficking. Bowing to a popular demand, the state cabinet instituted death penalty for rape cases where the woman dies or is left in a vegetative state. Hailing this remarkable bill, the Washington Post observed, ‘India has shown its political system can respond to an urgent popular demand for change’. Measures such as the criminalization of marital rape and sexual crimes committed by military personnel are yet to be taken up by the Indian Parliament during the course of this month (February 2013).
Laws and amendments to Laws, Bills, Acts, Enactments galore.... The redundant laws for safety of Indian women have not acted as a deterrent; they remain as a distant dream for Indian women. Horrific [sexual] violence against women and girls in a country that reveres them as Mother and Goddess is unacceptable. A society unable to respect, protect, and nurture its women and children loses its moral merit and bonding. Prosecution and strict legal action are likely to serve as vital deterrent in situations of violence against women. This includes three-tier approach. First, it is important to report rape and assault. Second, it is absolutely vital that law enforcers are trained to react swiftly and with sensitivity to women and children who have been harassed, assaulted or raped. Third, punishments need to be exemplary and widely covered in the media.
It has to be underlined that the government alone cannot solve the problem; a national awakening involving entire country and civil society is the need of hour. In other words, action from courts and police will not suffice if the community remains defiantly opposed to change; change concerns primarily attitudes. Education in attitudinal change must begin at home: male children elevated as superior to female children ought to be educated, trained and conscienticized to admit and respect equality of human beings. Given the impact of media today in all walks of life, our youth and children require to be safeguarded from falling easy prey to it: this entails guiding them to be critical and responsible in its consumption. An attitudinal change and not merely a change of assignment or appearance is a prerequisite for girls and women as well. This task calls for empowerment of women. A considerable instance in this regard is the paralegal training given to women in the region of Kutch since 1989. The initiative by an organization named Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) entitles women to receive a certificate from the Indian Institute of Paralegal Studies. The certificate enables them to be able to go to police station in case of atrocities against them and register an FIR which was otherwise arduous. This holds out an important lesson: ‘teach women how to use law, and the law might just protect them; leave them ignorant, and you might as well not have a law’ (The Hindu, September 16, 2012).
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that the real focus should entail changing the mindset of people that sees women as ‘repositories of honour’. So the task remains: how exactly to engage the entire populace to initiate a change in mindset? How can a national conversation on this subject be leveraged into national action?